The Digital Divide, first coined by Lloyd Morrisett in 2001, is the term used to examine the issues of technological accessibility. The digital age thrust us into a more global and technologically advanced society, and with that advancement has come some significant shortfalls. These shortfalls have become glaringly obvious amid the Coronavirus pandemic, and the growing need for remote work and learning opportunities.
In recent months following the start of the pandemic, almost every industry one can think of has shifted to online platforms to generate profit, serve the public, and offset the risk of Coronavirus transmission. While this shift has come with some benefits like reduction of overhead expenses for companies, reduced carbon emissions, and reduced virus transmission, it has also presented challenges for millions of Americans who don’t have regular access to technology. The FCC reports that nearly 19 million Americans are without access to fixed broadband services.
This means six percent of the U.S. population is without access to telemedicine services, remote learning opportunities, and other web-based services deemed essential at this time. The Pew Research Center recently released a connectivity chart which shows a ten-year comparison of internet access based on race and ethnicity. The information shows African Americans having the least amount of access compared to white and Hispanic counterparts.
Disparities most prevalently impact those with less education and income. Lack of access to digital opportunities only exacerbates these issues. Statista.com has also released statistics on the percentage of Americans who have broadband access. The information is broken down by areas of location, education, and income level. The implications are astounding.
Furthermore, the issues go far beyond the lack of access to broadband services. Access to hardware has recently become an issue for the millions of American children who are required to attend school remotely this year. Inflated costs and high demand for computers are just two of the reasons. Some school districts have recognized the need for technology and have responded by creating technology distribution programs. In some cases, these efforts have fallen short.
In Delaware, many families were required to enter into registration programs for remote learning tools at the start of the new school year. These programs were established to support those students without access to personal computers at home. The initiative included the Internet Essentials program by Comcast which was intended to provide families with affordable high-speed internet access for around ten dollars per month. The problem with the plan came about when families registered, only to be told schools had run out just days before the start of the semester. Now, some of those families have had to start school without the necessary tools for access.
Some parents fear their children being left behind. Nicole Baker is a resident of New Castle County and her daughter is a fifth-grade student in the Christina School District. Nicole expressed her concern in a recent virtual town hall held by the school district. “I don’t know what we are expected to do. I am a student myself and now my daughter has to use my computer for school. Something’s got to give.”
Teachers have also expressed concern for the limited resource. “I’m concerned for those children who will be trying to catch up for years to come. How do we ensure no child is left behind if they can’t even get to class?” asks Glenda Flowers, a fifth-grade Educational Instructor for Christina School District.
Many districts understand the need to be innovative and adaptive in their approach. When schools closed in early March of this year, a Montgomery Alabama school district deployed 11 wifi-enabled busses in the neediest areas. These buses were used as hotspots for families to utilize throughout the school day. They have also worked to supply schools with devices including Chromebooks, Ipads, and tablets.
When asked why the wifi program was important during an interview with the Montgomery Adviser, Mayor Steven Reed responded “Because we understand there’s a digital divide.” He then added, “And the coronavirus pandemic that we’re into right now has only heightened the chasm that exists between those who can access high-speed internet service and those who can’t.”